THE CHANGING FACE OF SCHOOL NUTRITION
National and state programs and resources like the NSLP should be applauded, but to be even more effective we need to bring them all under the same umbrella and coordinate our efforts.
Childhood obesity has doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years. Recently “The Washington Post” reported not a single state has an obesity rate below 20 percent, which has earned the United States the unenviable distinction as the world’s most obese major country. Even more shocking is that an estimated 61 percent of overweight young people have at least one additional risk factor for heart disease, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure.
While many factors must align to help young students develop lifelong healthy fitness and nutrition habits, we know bad habits are presently trumping efforts being made. School wellness plans providing healthy lunch choices for students while in school do not always follow those students home. So, how do we provide resources, but also shift the mindset of this next generation when it comes to making their own health and nutrition choices?
National and state programs are available to help schools reverse trends and educate the whole child — mind and body. There are 132,183 schools in the United States and the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), a federal assisted meal program, is operating in over 100,000 public and non-profit schools. The NSLP is designed to provide nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to more than 31 million children each school day. The guidelines require an increase in the availability of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains on the school menu. But does the food served during the school day affect the nutrition decisions these children make outside of school? Are we simply checking the nutrition requirements off the list, or are we taking the time to make sure the students understand the importance of food selections? Other factors must include combining physical activity, reviewing school nutrition policies, health programming for school staff, and implementation of ongoing health and physical education programs.
School nutrition guidelines are an important component for promoting overall wellness. Many districts are limiting foods defined as having “minimal nutritional value” from cafeterias, vending machines, and school sales. Studies show students make healthier food choices when those choices are made available for the students. However, healthy choices increase significantly when combined with ongoing education efforts. Schools with students who understand the importance of good health and then have direct and easy-to-follow guidelines have been shown to exhibit positive sustained changes in behavior and attitude. Empowering students to be healthy on their own volition will ultimately cultivate a health conscious generation.
National and state programs and resources like the NSLP should be applauded, but to be even more effective we need to bring them all under the same umbrella and coordinate our efforts. When young students begin forming their own lifestyle habits, many are not aware of the long-term consequences associated with their choices. Education is power.
Early, ongoing education instills the importance of good health. Unfortunately, health instruction in elementary schools often only touches on one or two core areas through a few short lessons each year. This is usually because classroom teachers have limited time and resources. Plus, classroom teachers typically face dueling demands to present other rigorous academic experiences such as math, reading and science. This combination translates into less time to review resources, develop lesson plans, and facilitate ongoing health education in the classroom.
Unlike a vaccine, obesity education cannot be a one-time shot!
Increased student activity sounds like it should be a simple fix, right? Remember teachers already have a long list of teaching objectives that must be accomplished. Enough physical activity needs to be integrated into the day or week to make a difference. Remember, once a student leaves school other factors start to encroach on the progress made. This requires teachers to be creative in how they include movement in other lesson plans while working to provide ongoing health education for their students.
Injecting ongoing health programs into classrooms helps:
- Teachers meet education requirements
- Coordinate available nutrition resources with health lessons in the classroom
- Empower the next generation to establish healthy habits. Effective educational programs help students understand the “why” and provide the “how.” In fact, education at an early age can be so powerful it changes cultural habits. Seat belt use and recycling are perfect examples of the effect education has on changing established cultural norms. How many adults have been told by a child to “buckle-up” or “put an aluminum can in the recycling?” When children have ongoing education, from an early age, and understand the “how” and “why” they can be the driving force in changing cultural habits.
Simply stated, the challenge for schools continues to be meeting academic requirements while still making time to keep children active and well. Building off the healthy meal choices in school and then empowering students to make their own choices outside of school requires student knowledge.
Since the government provides financial assistance and menu guidance for healthy lunches and snacks, consideration should be given to fund the cross-curricular education component. Similar to how the National School Lunch Program provides a per-child reimbursement for lunch and snacks, schools should also receive per child funding for education to engage children and help them improve their own nutrition and fitness behaviors. When young children are empowered with knowledge and understand how their individual actions can affect positive change, they are a powerful force. Children are like sponges; they absorb and retain knowledge. They will also tap into this knowledge to make better choices as they grow up.
With everything else going on in our world, obesity is still one of the greatest public health, social and economic challenges of our century. A wealth of resources is available to provide students with the “why” and “how.” It is time for resources to be synchronized to assure all cogs in the wheel are coordinated for success.
Finding resources that plug right into the classroom to provide students with the information they need to build healthy lives is one of those cogs. Using 21st century technology to deliver health education, we can empower young people without placing additional demands on teacher time. Together, it is time to define good habits for a healthier future.